You know, those moments when the sting of life's injustices penetrates the innocence of your youth and steals away a little piece of your naive perspective.
That is what occurred one fall day with The Walnut Tree.
I was in elementary school and was still not aware of socioeconomic status, tax brackets, welfare, medical bills, nor the measures some must take to make ends meet. I by no means came from a wealthy family, but I never worried about provisions and my heart was always content. I never thought about the savage inequalities in this world or the means a desperate mother would go to in order to provide for her family - at least not until Nicole knocked on my door one fall morning.
Nicole was in my class since kindergarten and although we played at recess and MASHed together at lunch, we never talked about her family or home life. Nicole was a painfully shy kid. Tough as nails. Competitive as all get out. And mean as grits. But she always wore a zip up jacket and ALWAYS had her hand stuffed in her pockets or gloves in the winter. Always. I thought this was to add to her Tough Girl image. I wish that were true.
I just assumed her weekends were filled with events like mine. Filled with family, activities, sports, church, and love. One Saturday I found how differently we lived, but how loved we both were.
Someone knocked on our door before I was even dressed. I did not bother to pull myself from the Thundercats and Cream of Wheat until mom came back into the room. I then asked who it was.
Someone wanting to pick walnuts.
Whatever....the Thundercats call had just been given and I could not be bothered with the mundane details of walnuts -- who in the world would want to PICK THOSE THINGS up? They stained your hands HORRIBLY. A few hours later I was still immersed in TV when the door bell rang. I drug myself to the door and there stood Nicole. Nicole from school? Hey girlfriend...what is up? Come in it is FREEZING out there. Where is your mom?
She would not even look at me. She just stated in a mumbled voice, "Pickin walnuts. Can I use your bathroom?"
She came in and left the house without a word. It was like we were strangers. As I peered through the window my dad explained to me that walnuts were bringing 25 cents a pound. And that her family had fallen on hard times. She had a special needs younger brother with medical bills, a laid off father, and three other siblings. They NEEDED this money.
Monday morning Nicole came in with her zipped up jacket and hands stuffed in her pockets. We never mentioned it. I never asked why her hands were stained. I never talked about it. We pretended like it never happened.
But I never forgot.